So this was the Hall, then.
Sabbat had to admit he was impressed. Not so much by the size of the place – the Grand Temple was easily three times the size, and even the little Temple of Ashkenta would’ve eaten Archer’s friend’s house for breakfast – but by the amount of work that’d gone into making it look damn near fucking impregnable.
Course, looks weren’t everything. Give him enough time, he’d find a way in. But whoever’d built this place had known what they were doing when it came to designing something that’d give even the most experienced thief pause.
“Reckon he’s goin’ t’be awake t’let us in? Be a fuckin’ shame t’come all this way an’ freeze t’death on his doorstep.”
Archer nodded. “He’ll be awake. Or, at least, someone will be.” He jerked his head towards the tunnel and the lantern just visible on the other side. “There’s always someone awake at the Hall. Just in case.”
Ordinarily, Sabbat would’ve made a crack about toffs paying money for folks to sit up all night doing nothing, but it didn’t seem the time for it – and, truth be told, he wasn’t feeling overly like pulling strips off Mortimer’s da. Aye, soldier-boy was halfway useless when it came to anything properly shadowy, but he was halfway competent too, and the way he’d talked about his family made it seem like he actually gave a fuck about staying in touch with them (not something Sabbat understood properly, mind, but there was a small biting feeling at the back of his mind that said that if Archer’s friend’s boy was lucky enough to have a family who gave a shit about him, he’d be more of a bastard than usual to make comment on it right now).
Instead, he looked around, shading his eyes against the driving snow, and asked, “Where’re we meant t’be leavin’ the horses, anyhow? Don’t reckon your friend’ll want us ridin’ ’em in through the front door.”
Archer laughed. “You’re not wrong. There’s a stable round the back – we’ll head there first, get these three squared away, then come back and make our introductions.”
Sounded just fine to Sabbat’s ears: sooner they got shot of the damn things the better, and heading round to the back of the place meant he’d have more of a chance to work out how he’d break in if he had to. Not that he was going to, of course, but it was worth keeping his eye in all the same.
Worth keeping yourself distracted, you mean. Else you might start thinking about the fact that you ain’t just coughing up blood any more, and wondering exactly how much longer you’ve got.
Wasn’t much he could do about it either way. Either they’d fix the sixdamn box or they’d not, and if they didn’t…
Then I’ll choose my own way out. Ain’t giving the bastard the satisfaction.
The silver inlay of the box twisted again, almost as if it’d heard his thoughts, and another wave of nausea slammed through him. Oh, that’d be a sodding good first impression to make. Vomit up blood all over Archer’s toff friend’s sodding doorstep.
“‘s nothin’- ugh. Goin’ t’-” Another wave of nausea, this one worse than the last, and he doubled over, hand pressed to his mouth as the back of his throat filled with blood and bile. The metal of the box was twisting almost constantly now, writhing and pulsating against his skin as though it was a living thing – he pulled his other hand from the reins, placed it on the thing in an attempt to somehow calm it, and then yanked his hand away, hissing under his breath, as the box flared suddenly red-hot under his palm.
“What’s wrong?” Archer asked again. He leant across, one hand outstretched towards Sabbat’s torso. “Let me-“
“No!” Sabbat snarled, the word half-choked with gore. He slammed his hand down on Archer’s arm, knocking the vampire’s hand away before his fingers could make contact with the box, and, with his other hand, grabbed the bastard thing out of his waistcoat and hurled it as far as he could across the white expanse in front of the Hall.
The box hit the ground with a hiss and a plume of steam, barely visible through the flurries of snow. Sabbat’s horse, alarmed by the gesticulating and yelling, reared up on her hind legs, hooves thrashing the sky.
And Sabbat, who’d taken both hands off the reins to deal with the bastard artefact that’d been making a very good attempt at burning a hole through his fucking chest, suddenly found himself flat on his back in the snow with the world spinning drunkenly around him and his breath whistling in his throat as he gasped for air.
Fucking hellfire. This is getting to be a sodding habit.
His throat burned, phantom pressure crushing down on it as though Caine’s fingers were still wrapped around his neck. Sparks of pain stuttered up his leg, his arm, curved around his ribs, shot up his spine to ground themselves behind his eyes and send the whirling snowflakes spinning and careening off into purple-black lightning-flashes that ripped their way across his vision. And, under it all, something empty and clawing and cold twisted inside his chest, scrabbling at the inside of his ribcage with claws of ice that tore and gouged and left white hot trails of freezing pain in their wake.
Somewhere very far away someone was shouting, their words muffled by the ringing in his ears. He tried to tell them to shut up, to fuck off, to go get Archer if they wanted to be fucking useful, but all that came out was a cough, and then a gasp, and then a rush of blood and foam that filled his mouth and his nose and spilled down over the sides of his face, hot and damp and choking and-
“Breathe. Breathe. It’s alright. I have you. I have you.”
Someone’s hand – Archer’s hand – on his shoulder, rolling him onto his side, letting the choking tide flood out of his mouth to drain into the freezing snow.
Another voice, not one he knew, asking what sounded like a question.
Footsteps, away and back, fast but not running, and a hand that wasn’t Archer’s reaching down to place something on the snow near him.
Archer’s hand on his own, fingers interlacing.
Something hard and cold under his hand. Something moving. Something-
And, as his fingers closed around the box and the pressure in his throat eased, he did just that, gasping down lungfuls of cold, clean mountain air until his lungs burned and his head swam with the taste of it. The worst of the rest of the pain was receding as well, washed away by the Smoke-like warmth emanating from the artefact, and, as he spat the last of the blood out into the snow and wiped his mouth with one shaking hand, he finally looked up and into the face of the stranger who’d possibly just risked their own fucking neck to stop him breaking his.
The stranger in question was a tall man, human by the look of him, with a long grey braid and a white duelling scar cutting through one leathery brown cheek. He was wearing a quilted silk dressing gown, pyjamas, and riding boots, and supporting himself on what Sabbat was fairly bloody certain was a sword-cane.
And, from the way he was looking at the two of them, he was almost certainly wondering what in the hells they were doing on his driveway.
“Good evening,” said Archmage Verist. “Or, I suppose I should say, good morning.” He crouched down, leaning on his cane, and frowned gravely at Sabbat. “Let me first extend my deepest apologies for your current state. I didn’t realise that my wards would react quite so violently to your… unwanted passenger, and since our mutual friend didn’t have enough time to warn me you’d be coming – don’t pull that face, Will, I’m not blaming you for it – I didn’t think to deactivate them.”
His wards. Fucking hellfire.
Should’ve fucking realised. Foremost magical expert on all things pre-Fall, famously not taking a side in the damn war and yet a close enough friend of Archer’s that he trusts him with this, and he’s not got a gate or guards? Of course he’d have a fucking ward up.
On the heels of that, and significantly more petty, And where’s he get off calling Archer ‘Will’, anyhow?
His throat was too damn raw to make much in the way of conversation – second time in as many bloody weeks, it felt like – but he coughed, swallowed, and finally managed to grind out a hoarse “Y’touch it?”
Verist shook his head, smiling a little. “Your concern’s appreciated, but I took the precaution of bringing a very thick pair of gloves out with me.” His smile vanished. “Though, if I’m right in my assumption as to the purpose of that particular artefact, I highly doubt that would have mattered.”
“What do you mean?” Archer asked. He slid an arm under Sabbat’s shoulders, helping him up into a sitting position, and frowned at Verist. “It’s some sort of a healing amulet, isn’t it?”
“Yes, and no. The pressure on my wards was a good deal more aligned with the kind of reaction I’ve only encountered from certain kinds of artefact which were used by our not-so-illustrious forefathers for the purpose of preserving their own lives, often at the cost of another’s. If I’m right – and I’d have to check my books to be sure – that box is likely one of a pair of such artefacts, though without examining it significantly more closely I can’t tell you whether the second of the pair is still in existence.”
One of the bastarding things was more than enough as far as Sabbat was concerned, but he was also too damn tired to argue the point. He closed his eyes for a moment, fighting back a yawn, and let his head fall back against Archer’s shoulder. “…Fuck this.”
“Agreed,” Archer said, quietly. He reached into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a hipflask, nicer than Sabbat’s own but of a similar style. “Drink?”
Sabbat didn’t bother to answer, just grabbed the flask out of Archer’s hand. His fingers were shaking hard enough that he fumbled the cap more than once, but he eventually got it unscrewed, dropped it in the snow, and emptied half the flask down his throat before his brain caught up with his hands and he realised that might not have been the best idea.
“Easy, easy. You’ll choke yourself again.”
Thankfully, whatever was in the flask went down smoother than Sabbat’s usual rotgut gin, though he still ended up coughing at least half of it back up when it hit the back of his throat. He wiped his mouth, handing the flask back, and said, hoarsely, “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Archer said, reaching down to scoop the cap out of the snow. He took a swig from the flask himself, then held it out to Verist. “Drink?”
“Gladly,” the other man said, taking the flask. “Is there any reason that the rest of this conversation can’t happen inside? I feel the cold more than I used to, I’ll admit, and your friend here would probably benefit from a seat by the fire and something to warm him up.”
“An’ a cigarette,” Sabbat added. Truth be told, he was fairly fucking certain he’d fall asleep the moment they got into the warm, but he’d been after a smoke for hours now. And a Smoke, but that ain’t something to bring up right now. Easy enough to find somewhere out of the way once I’ve slept.
Verist smiled. “If you want to smoke, I’ll not stop you. I’m partial to cigars myself, in fact.”
Course you are. Toff. But, despite himself, he thought that he was actually starting to like the older magician.
Or maybe it was just that Verist had mentioned the possibility of a fire, and he was currently so sodding cold he couldn’t feel the ends of his fingers. “We goin’ in or no?”
“We need to see to the horses,” Archer said, but he sounded more as though he was trying to convince himself than anyone else. “They shouldn’t be left standing out-“
Verist held up a hand, cutting Archer off mid-sentence. “I’ve already sent Thomas to check that there’s room in the stables. He’ll take charge of these three and see that they’re properly treated.”
“Should nothing. I know the old cavalry officer instincts die hard, my friend, but you’re barely holding yourself together as it is. You and I both know those horses will have better care from someone who’s a good deal fresher and a good deal less tired than either of you.” He got to his feet, using his cane to lever himself up (left leg, Sabbat noted, almost automatically. Not putting as much weight on it as his right, and the knee doesn’t bend properly), and held out a hand to Archer. “Let’s continue this somewhere more comfortable, shall we?”
“I suppose you have rather worn down my objections,” Archer said, wryly. He turned his head, looking down at Sabbat with an expression that was halfway concern and halfway something Sabbat couldn’t quite put his finger on. “Can you stand?”
“Course I can.” He was fairly fucking certain that was a lie, given how badly his back hurt, but not admitting weakness in front of strangers was practically a reflex at this point – never mind that Verist’d just seen him nearly choke to death on his own blood, and almost certainly knew he wasn’t up for a fight.
Principle of the fucking thing, and Archer knows as much. Just need the toff to turn around, and then-
Then… he’d think of something.
Archer sighed. “If I give you a hand up,” he muttered, quiet enough that Sabbat had to strain to hear him, “are you going to be able to stand on your own, or are you going to need to lean on me? And, for the sake of my sanity and neither of us developing frostbite, let’s assume that you’ve already told me that you don’t need my help in the first place and take that as a given.”
“Bastard,” Sabbat growled, more out of habit than anything else. He shifted position experimentally, biting back a hiss of pain as the movement sent a jolt of agony sparking up his spine. Take me halfway to morning just to get halfway to vertical at this rate. And he’s right about the bloody frostbite. “Think- ngh- y’might have t’help. Ain’t goin’ anywhere by m’self right now.”
From the look on Archer’s face, he’d not been expecting that much in the way of honesty. He frowned. “Are you feeling alr-“
“Don’t.” Only reason you got that admission out of me in the first place is on account of I trust you not to start treating me like I’m sodding breakable if I tell you I can’t do something. You start fucking pitying me, we’re going to have a problem. “Jus’… help me up, will y’?”
“That, I can do. Put your arm over my shoulders.”
It took more effort than he’d have liked, and hurt like a bastard in the bargain, but eventually he managed to get his left arm to where Archer could get a hold of his wrist (which made something in his chest flicker and twist in a way that had nothing to do with the pain) and pull it to where it needed to be – and then, with Archer’s hand holding him steady and the vampire’s arm tight around his ribs, he was just about able to get himself to something resembling standing.
“How’s that?” Archer asked, once the two of them had managed to get themselves properly balanced.
How do you think? Hurts like fuck, and the fucking box is taking its fucking time to fucking fix it. But there was nothing anyone could do about that, and he’d be damned if he was going to admit exactly how bad it was. Especially with Verist still around, even if the other magician did look like he was doing his best not to listen in.”Been worse.”
The vampire rolled his eye. “Let me guess. You’ve been a damn sight better as well.”
That had been exactly what he was going to say, but like hell he was going to give Archer the satisfaction. “Plannin’ t’stand around out here ’til we freeze t’death?”
“It wasn’t on my list of things to do this evening, no.” He sighed. “You know, this would probably be easier if I just carried you.”
“Fuck off.” He’d allow Archer to give him a shoulder to lean on – wasn’t as if that hadn’t happened before, after all – but there were limits. “Ain’t fuckin’ dead yet.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’, then.”
“‘m fine. Jus’ need a shoulder t’lean on, ‘s all.” And a bath, and a drink, and a smoke, and a Smoke (ha!), and a sleep, and to not be tied to some sodding pre-Fall magelord artefact, for a start. But I’ll take the sixdamn shoulder for now.
Archer raised an eyebrow, but didn’t argue the point (which Sabbat was grateful for, though he’d not admit as much). “Shall we?”
“‘I doubt we’ll see anyone on the way’?” Fest whispered, as the other priest bustled off down the corridor.
Anneke pulled a face. “I said I was sorry, didn’t I? And it’s not my fault that Ivar insists on being wrong about that gateway spell. If they’re going to keep working on that theory, they can’t afford to keep their head buried in the sand, even if it does mean facing up to the fact that one of the founding scholars of the field couldn’t keep her numbers straight and kept flipping the figures in her multiplications. I’m doing them a favour, really, even if they’re too boneheaded to see it yet.”
Having seen the faces Ivar had been making during the conversation, Fest wasn’t entirely sure that was true, but he was equally certain that attempting to persuade Anneke of that fact would likely wind up with him sporting exactly the same expression. “I’m sure they just need some time to think on it,” he said, diplomatically. “And besides, they did seem to think that your suggestion on how to tweak the geometry of the sigils had merit.”
“It needs work, though. If I-“
“Maybe work on it after we get back to your room?” Fest suggested, putting his hand to his mouth to stifle a yawn (and then drawing it back down with a wince as the motion jarred the improvised splints holding his finger in place). It’d been a long night, made all the longer by the fact that Ivar wasn’t the only person Anneke had insisted on stopping to talk to on the way, and he was becoming very deeply and consciously aware of the fact that he had lectures in the morning. And it’s Comparative Approaches first thing, worst luck. If I manage to make it to lunchtime without falling asleep, I’ll consider it a gift from the Goddess at this point.
The little priest frowned, obviously considering the matter. “I could, but I’d do better if I had that scroll that Nia’s working on. They should still be awake – they’re on the other side of the temple, so it’d be a detour, but-“
“Poppy-milk first, scrolls later. Please?”
Anneke’s face fell. “Oh Goddess, I’m sorry! I’d completely forgotten about your hand.”
I wish I had that luxury, Fest thought, but he didn’t say it out loud. It was his own stupid fault he’d broken his finger, after all, and Anneke was doing him a hell of a favour by letting him have access to their medical supplies. Especially poppy-milk. That stuff’s expensive, especially if it’s pure.
“We’re not far from my room, at least,” they went on, after a moment. “And you’re going to need to lie down after you’ve taken the draught – it’s strong. You can borrow my bed, if you like.”
Fest got the distinct impression they were trying to make up for the delay, but he had to admit that the offer was tempting. Even if he was also fairly certain that turfing a priest out of their own bed was probably blasphemy of some variety. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. I’ll have to move some of the papers, but I’ve been meaning to do that for weeks and never got around to it, so in a way you’re doing me a favour.”
“No, that’s not what I meant. Where are you going to sleep?”
“On the floor, of course.”
“That’s- I-” If turfing a priest out of their bed probably counted as blasphemy, making them sleep on the floor definitely did. “Please don’t. Not on my account. I’ll sleep on the floor, and you take the bed.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” they said, with more force than he’d come to expect from them. “You’re injured, you’re the one sleeping on the bed. That’s how it works.” They laughed. “Besides, I probably won’t end up getting to sleep until the morning anyhow. I still need to work out exactly what it was that you did to put out that fire.”
“Don’t be! I need to work out if it was a reaction to your abilities – because if it is, then that’s fascinating – or if you just managed to break the table in exactly the right way to sever the loop, which would be less fascinating but also a useful piece of information when it comes to dealing with that kind of accident in future.” They’d started walking faster as they talked, enough so that Fest had fallen a few paces behind, and the corridor bent at a sharp right-angle so that the next part of the explanation came floating back to him from around the corner. “It could also be useful if someone decided to weaponise that kind of fire. I’m not certain exactly how they’d go about it, since we managed to make it accidentally so I’d need to go back over the notes and figure out the exact cause, but if they did then a magical flame which can’t be put out by conventional means would be an exceptionally dangerous thing in the hands of-” They stopped mid-sentence, their voice trailing off into silence.
“What’s wrong?” Fest asked, hurrying to catch up as fast as his tired legs would allow. Then, as he rounded the corner, he saw exactly what had stopped the little priest mid-flow.
The door to Anneke’s room hung drunkenly open, one hinge ripped completely out of the wall and the other skewed at an angle that looked to Fest’s eyes as though at least half the screws were broken. Through the gap left by the broken door, he glimpsed ransacked boxes and upended furniture, rising like lone islands in the midst of a sea of loose paper and scattered books.
“Are you alright-” he began, and then stopped, because of course they weren’t, what kind of a question was that? “Do you need me to fetch someone?”
Anneke shook their head, eyes fixed on the ruined doorway of their room. “No. I- I need to find out what’s missing.”
“You can help me.” They smiled shakily. “Besides, what if whatever did this comes back? I might need someone to engage in heroics at it.”
“Of course,” Fest said, as gently as he could. He wanted to offer Anneke a hug, but he suspected that wasn’t what they needed right now. They want to keep themselves busy until they’ve figured out exactly how bad this is, I think. “Is there anything else I can be doing?”
“Tarn’s already gone to find the senior who’s on night duty,” said an unfamiliar voice.
Fest looked up.
Another young priest was standing in the corridor, barefoot and holding a sword. As they noticed Fest looking at them they inclined their head, making a small bow, and gestured towards Anneke’s room. “We heard the crashing and came to investigate – when we saw the damage, I sent Tarn for the senior and set myself on guard in case whoever it was came back.”
“Did you see it?” Anneke asked, quietly.
The priest shook their head. “Sorry, sib. When we came round the corner, the door was like that and there was nobody in the room. We think they must have heard us coming and bolted.”
“At least it’s material enough to break doors, I suppose. Did you see which way it went?”
“Tarn heard something that sounded like breaking glass when we were on the stairs. They think whoever – or whatever – it was might have gone for the window above the back gateway. If it did, it could be miles away by now.”
“I’ll go and check.”
“No you won’t,” the other priest said. They lowered the sword, reaching out to place their other hand gently on Anneke’s shoulder. “You are going to stay right here until Tarn gets back, and then we’re going to set to work putting your room to rights.” They looked across at Fest. “Do you think you could keep my sibling company while I go and rustle up a round of tea?”
“Of course. Though are you sure you don’t want me to-“
“Pale worried-looking red-eye wandering around our halls at ridiculous o’clock in the morning? You’re Anneke’s student friend, which means you’re the one they’ve not shut up about for the past few days – sorry, sib, but it’s true – which means you’re almost certainly on the level.” They winked. “Besides, you didn’t think Anneke was the only Order member in the priesthood, did you?”
And with that, they turned on their heel and headed off down the corridor, robes swishing behind them. Fest watched them go, feeling distinctly as though, yet again, he was standing on the edge of something a good deal deeper and more dangerous than he’d properly come to terms with.
Though I suppose at least if we’re going to face the unknown, we’re apparently going to face it fortified with tea.
Beside him, he heard Anneke make a small sound. For a moment he though that they were sobbing – then he realised, with a rush of relief, that they were laughing, very quietly. “Sorry. Nia’s a bit… take-charge when it comes to crises.”
“I noticed. And… tea?”
“Warm liquid, and sugar. It’s good for shock. Especially with the amount of jam they put in it.” They sank down against the wall, rested their head against the plaster, and sighed. “In all honesty, I’ve been expecting something like this for a while. Your friend at the university wasn’t exactly subtle.”
“Gods, I’m sorry.”
“Why? It’s not your fault.”
“If I hadn’t-“
“If you hadn’t nothing,” Anneke snapped. “He already knew who I was, and he’d likely already been planning this for months. If you hadn’t got involved, all that would be different is that I might have been in there when whatever it was he sent came in. We’ll wait for Nia and Tarn and whoever else they’re bringing to get back, then we’ll go through and get an inventory of whatever it is that they’ve taken. And then…” They scowled. “Then, we’ll give the bastard reason to remember that the Twilight Sister has more faces than just knowledge and book-learning. She’s the Hunter for a reason, after all.”
It was all of thirty steps to the door. Maybe less. It felt like three hundred.
The box was still doing something, he was sure of that, but it was working a fuck of a lot slower than it had the last time he’d been properly separated from it. Probably Verist’s wards had done something to it – overheated it or thrown enough magic into it to overload its workings or something of the sort – but he couldn’t help but feel as though it might also be withholding its power deliberately, punishing him for having dared to try and throw it away.
Well, if that was the case, it could go on fucking sulking as far as Sabbat was concerned. At this point I’d even take the damn months of bed rest those injuries’d likely catch me over being tied to this sodding thing any longer. As soon as I find a way to cut myself loose-
And there – right there, like a shard of glass embedded in a wound – was the sixdamn crux of it all. Because he didn’t have a way to sever his connection to the box (at least, not one that wasn’t going to be immediately fatal) and he’d be damned if he was going to spend the rest of his life shackled to the fucking thing, which meant-
That you listen to Archer’s friend before you up and do anything sodding stupid, because that’s the whole fucking reason you came here. Idiot.
Ahead of them, Verist stopped just short of the steps up to the looming main doors of the Hall. “Under normal circumstances I’d bring you in through the side door,” he said, over his shoulder. “Fewer steps, and doesn’t require me to take down half the wards in the process. But given your current state – both of you – and the look of that sky, I rather think the sooner we get inside the better.”
Sabbat wasn’t about to argue. The area around the Hall might’ve been sheltered from the worst of the weather, but the way the clouds were drawing in didn’t bode well for anyone caught out in the cold in the next few hours.
Get inside. Deal with everything else later.
Easier said than done, it turned out. By the time the two of them had made their way to the top of the steps, the only thing keeping Sabbat upright was sheer bloodyminded determination not to fall flat on his face in front of Archer’s toff friend for the second time that night – and, judging by the tight line of Archer’s jaw and the way his breath was hissing between his teeth, he was in almost the same state.
Verist had gone up ahead of them, and, as they reached the top step, he pressed his hand against the central band of metal crossing the right-hand door and muttered a phrase in Old Sacaask, too quiet for Sabbat to make out more than a couple of words.
And nothing happened.
Or, at least, nothing visible. But Sabbat was a magician – and a sodding good one, for all half the toffs in the Order forgot that on the regular – and, back behind the visible, he felt the wards on the door flare up and then die down, turning from roaring flames to glowing embers as Verist poured his own power into the working.
Still hot enough to burn. But low enough for us to get over the threshold before we catch more than a few scorchmarks.
“That should hold,” Verist said, turning back to the two of them with a tired smile as the door swung slowly open. “Though I’d suggest getting inside sooner rather than later. I don’t know exactly what would happen if the wards were to come back up while you were carrying that artefact through them, but I doubt it would be anything pleasant.”
Sabbat didn’t doubt that. He pushed himself away from Archer – no need to take the other man down with him if the wards did flare up again – set his jaw, and took a step towards the doorway.
Even with Verist’s suppression spell in place, the magic coming off the threshold was strong enough to taste, colouring the air with the bright electric tint of stormlight and the hollow copper stench of blood – or maybe that was just the sodding nosebleed again. He coughed, wiped his nose with the back of one gloved hand, and spat gore into the snow.
“Strong workin’, that.”
“Not entirely my own,” Verist admitted. “The Hall’s been standing longer than I’ve been alive, and I’m not the first of my line to have an aptitude for that kind of spellwork.”
“You’re also selling yourself distinctly short,” Archer said. “I remember when you started refining those wards, and they weren’t nearly as well-tuned as they are now.”
“Oh, I acknowledge that. But when we-“
Sabbat stopped listening. He’d get the story from Archer once they were inside, if it was worth hearing, but he’d no desire to spend the rest of the night waiting for the two of them to stop reminiscing.
Lady, protect me – or at the fucking least, keep me from embarrassing myself in front of folks who ain’t yours. Again.
He took a breath, closed his eyes, and stepped over the threshold and into the Hall proper.
Crossing the wards felt like nothing so much as diving off the rail of the Arrow into a calm sea – a brief, hanging moment of weightlessness, a rush of pressure, and then the rest of the world dropping away into silence except for the thudding of his heart in his ears and the faint distorted buzz of whatever was going on above the surface.
Could get used to this, if staying too long wouldn’t drown me.
For a moment, he was somewhere and somewhen else entirely: under the water in the harbour, eyes stinging from the salt, diving down to hunt for treasure in the silt or chase the silver flicker-fast fish darting between the bellies of the merchant ships. Then his boot hit the flagstones on the other side of the door and he surfaced, light and heat and sound battering suddenly against his senses with enough force that he swayed sideways and had to prop himself up on the wall to keep from keeling over into the coatrack.
“Are you alright?” Archer said, from somewhere behind his shoulder.
“Aye, ‘m fine.”
“Need to sit down?”
“Through here,” Verist said, limping past the two of them. “I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with a rather more barebones dinner, since I doubt Cyra’s still up, but there’s more than enough tea and brandy to go around.”
The room he led them into was almost twice the size of Sabbat’s garret at the Daggers, the ceiling high enough to be lost in the shadows cast by the fire roaring in the massive fireplace set into the far wall. There was a huge threadbare rug laid over the flagstone floor, and, clustered around the hearth, a collection of mismatched armchairs and battered-looking tables. The biggest of the tables held a huge ancient-looking samovar and a set of tea glasses as mismatched as the chairs, while the smaller ones were piled high with books, papers, and what Sabbat recognised after a moment as dried herb bundles of the kind used in most Sacaask spellwork.
“Sit, sit,” the older magician said, gesturing to the chairs. “And don’t worry overmuch about changing your boots – that rug’s survived far worse than a couple of sets of muddy hobnails.”
“Wasn’t planning on worryin’ about it,” Sabbat muttered under his breath. Half of the chairs were facing away from the door, which immediately ruled them out, but there was one tucked into the corner nearest the hearth which looked like it’d give him a fair view of both the doorway and the rest of the room. Fairly fucking certain those wards’d keep out any Sinnlenst who wanted to try following us in here. Still ain’t sitting with my back to a door.
Verist took the chair next to the samovar, which Sabbat’d been expecting. Archer took the chair next to Sabbat’s, which he hadn’t been.
“Ain’t about t’faint on you, if that’s what you’re worryin’ about.”
“Thank you for the reassurance,” Archer said, drily. “Is it too much to assume that I might just enjoy your company?”
“If you’re lookin’ for scintillatin’ conversation, you’re goin’ t’be disappointed.” He yawned, settled back deeper into the armchair. “‘sides, ain’t y’got catchin’ up t’do wi’ your friend there?”
“Plenty, but I don’t see the conflict.” He reached out, accepted two of the tea glasses from Verist and placed one neatly among the papers on the table by Sabbat’s elbow. “And besides, I suspect we’ll be here for a while.”
There’s something you ain’t saying. Problem is, I don’t have a sixdamn clue what it is. He picked up the glass, wrapping the fingers of both hands around the metal of the holder and feeling the warmth of the drink seeping through his gloves. “How’re you holdin’ up?”
“Nothing that won’t be mended by sleep and a good meal, I think. And thank you.”
“Ain’t plannin’ on makin’ a habit of it. Jus’ didn’t want t’have t’lug your lanky carcass all the way up here, ‘s all.” The tea was still too hot to drink, but the steam curling up from the rim of the glass seemed to fill his mouth with the taste of it all the same. The fire crackled in the hearth, the wind rattled the shutters, and, as he rested his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes for a moment, it almost felt as though things might – just fucking might – be going the right way for a change.
[START (SERIES) – Blood on the Snow: Chapter 1]
[Author’s note: this is first/discovery draft content – I apologise for the likely increased number of typos]
Copyright © 2021 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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